VANCOUVER — On paper, music director Otto Tausk’s season ender for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s flagship “Masterworks Series” looked like a grab bag: a token new piece by a local composer, a classic concerto, and two seemingly incompatible works from the early 20th century. In the concert hall it worked, and worked rather well.
This has been a more challenging season than usual for the orchestra, an organization grappling with how to come back from the pandemic and possibly re-invent itself. Getting audiences back to the Orpheum Theatre has been the obvious goal, but there have been setbacks: two major soloists canceled, and there was significant change in the artistic management team. Then came the shocking death just a year ago of music director emeritus Bramwell Tovey, who led the VSO from 2000 until 2018. But the pair of concerts June 2-3 succeeded in bringing the season to a meaningful, even inspiring close.
The Vancouver Symphony has made a commendable long-term attempt to address inclusivity. Allowing that diversity can and should begin at home, local composer Dorothy Chang’s 2021 Precipice was chosen to launch the program, foreshadowing a fairly heady assortment of shortish works by an international array of women that will play a significant role in next season’s programs.
Precipice employs a substantial orchestra, tying in with the extravagant forces required for the final work on the program. From the platform, Tausk described Precipice as an earnest proposition referencing climate change and the recent pandemic. Commencing with an edgy rhythmic gesture high in the piano, then moving to darker and sometimes brasher gestures, Chang’s work is full of effective orchestral colors. It reflects a high level of craft and academic polish, but it’s rarely memorable.
The performance of Brahms’ Violin Concerto with Stefan Jackiw was an entirely different matter. Now in early mid-career, Jackiw is a known entity, especially here in the Pacific Northwest, which he has visited regularly for over a decade. The pairing of conductor and soloist was particularly fruitful. Tausk and Jackiw seemed in complete agreement about the overall pacing of this magisterial symphony-concerto: a discursive but purposeful Allegro non troppo; an exemplary Adagio filled with emotion but tempered by a measure of restraint; and a robust Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace to round out the whole.
Jackiw’s sound was sharply focused but luminously transparent; his upper register work had laser-like intensity and utterly surefooted accuracy. His consistently well thought-through interpretation was personal in the best sense. Soloistic filigree complemented the orchestra when required; there was no virtuoso bombast playing to the gallery. Brahms was the star, Jackiw and Tausk his eloquent advocates. A carefully delineated balance of rhetoric and poetry was key to Jackiw’s reading.
Tausk was fully on board with Jackiw’s approach, giving the soloist all the room he needed to work his particular magic. Though the first movement was blemished by a few moments of sub-par playing in the winds and horns, the orchestra generally showed care and consideration. Both soloist and conductor eschewed overwrought effects and cheap flash, and the dramatic thread of the work unfolded in an entirely natural, purposeful way.
Tausk filled out the second half of the evening with Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Respighi’s Pines of Rome, seemingly uneasy bedfellows. Back in the day, Vancouver’s orchestra, like the city itself, had significant colonial ties to England. That era is gone forever, but subscribers with long memories can still hearken back to Meredith Davies’ time with the orchestra in the 1960s, not to mention the more recent tenure of fellow Brit Tovey. While neither attempted the entire Vaughan Williams symphony cycle, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis still counts as VSO core repertoire.
Many conductors don’t really get Vaughan Williams, and those who consider him a mere provincial pastoralist are well advised to keep his orchestral works off their to-do list. How would Tausk handle a slightly condescending nod to the Vaughan Williams 150th anniversary year? Rather well, it turned out. His was no tepid, respectful reading: The extraordinary detail of the score was presented with a full range of string colors and an unusually warm, even virile sound, with particular emphasis on the lower strings. Tausk paced the piece as if all in one breath. By slightly downplaying the climactic moment where the two string orchestras and featured quartet come together in ecstatic concord, he made the actual return of the opening materials and the concluding, soaring solo cadenzas wonderfully expressive. His surging final chord was rich and passionate before dissolving to silence.
If the Fantasia is standard VSO fare, Respighi’s Pines of Rome has long been a party piece particularly associated with the years when Kazuyoshi Akiyama led the ensemble. The eruption of sound that begins “The Pines of the Villa Borghese” was especially vital after the mysteries of the Vaughan Williams, and made quite the point. The Fantasia showed what the strings could do all on their own; now it was time for the kaleidoscopic brilliance of the early modern orchestra in all its splendor.
Compared with the interpretive demands of the Brahms concerto, Respighi’s 1924 showpiece all but plays itself. Blend, balance, and trajectory are hardwired into the music. Though one doesn’t immediately think of Pines as particularly subtle, the inventiveness of the composer’s orchestral technique reminds us that Respighi studied with Rimsky-Korsakov. And Tausk was assistant conductor to Valery Gergiev with the Rotterdam Philharmonic. Hard not to see connections.
I’ve never heard Tausk as blissfully uninhibited as in the program’s second half. Caught up in contrasting worlds of sonority, we were treated to one of those “I wouldn’t have missed this for anything” evenings. Which, if you are trying to make the case for live concerts of orchestral music after all the making-do and reduced expectations of the last few years, may well have been Tausk’s point. This is what we come back to the concert hall for: the scope, the excitement, and the grandeur of the live orchestral experience.